'Really, really challenging': Indiana athletic director struggles to get fans to follow mask mandate

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Following recent criticism over the lack of mask-wearing at sporting events, Indiana University Athletic Director Scott Dolson appeared at Monroe County's Board of Health meeting Thursday to reaffirm the university's commitment to the health order and explain some persistent compliance challenges.

Attendee compliance with Monroe's mask mandate is extremely important to IU, according to Dolson. While compliance challenges visibly remain, Dolson wanted to assure health board members that IU continues to take the health order extremely seriously.

Currently, IU has several measures in place to encourage mask-wearing at home games for various sports, with the biggest indoor crowds being inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

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Every ticket-holder receives a pre-game email that informs them of the current mask mandate in Monroe County. As attendees enter the venue, IU staff members distribute masks to those without one. At an average men's basketball game with around 15,000 attendees, Dolson estimated IU gives out around 4,000 masks. The venue's listed capacity is 17,222.

Indiana fans cheer during the first half of the Indiana-Eastern Michigan men's basketball game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall Nov. 9.
Indiana fans cheer during the first half of the Indiana-Eastern Michigan men's basketball game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall Nov. 9.

On multiple occasions during each game, attendees see video board messages as well as hear public announcements that reiterate Monroe's health order. IU event ushers frequently walk around the aisles with signs that encourage mask-wearing as well. Nonetheless, many fans are ignoring them.

"Full compliance in large stadiums is really, really challenging, not just specific to us," Dolson said, describing similar problems he's heard from other athletics directors in the Big Ten Conference.

Assembly Hall is like a "big, large bowl" where communication can be difficult, Dolson said. Additionally, with concessions being available, many attendees can claim they are actively eating and drinking as a reason for not wearing their masks.

Under Monroe County's current health order, attendees can take off their masks while seated at an establishment that serves food and drinks as long as they are actively eating and drinking.

Board member Mark Norrell asked if there were any more stringent measures that were internally considered before ultimately being dismissed.

The COVID-19 mask-wearing protocol is pointed out on the big screen during the first half of the Indiana-Merrimack men's basketball game Dec. 12 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
The COVID-19 mask-wearing protocol is pointed out on the big screen during the first half of the Indiana-Merrimack men's basketball game Dec. 12 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

According to Dolson, one more heavy-handed measure discussed amongst other colleagues in the Big Ten Conference was having staff point out and approach people who were not being compliant with the mask order. However, attendees could claim they were eating or drinking their concession items, which is permitted.

"It's one of those things that you're putting a finger in kind of the dike, stopping one leak, and it's hard. So it really would put our support staff in a position that they're set up to fail," Dolson said.

Dolson said IU wants to continue finding creative ways to deliver their communications.

"I think our fans, (from) what we have seen, are more responsive to positive reinforcement rather than, as you suggest, a negative of 'Hey, you better do this and here's your last warning or we'll try to eject you.' And, again, doing that would be just really challenging to get that done, although I understand the seriousness of it. I just think because someone can always just have a drink in their hand and pull (the mask) down and say, 'I was drinking,' it's just really hard with the food and drink portion of it," Dolson said.

Board member Carol Litten Touloukian suggested discontinuing indoor concessions and parking food trucks outdoors where attendees can eat before the game. Dolson said he anticipates that would generate a very negative reaction from fans, but he said he will bring it up to colleagues for some thought.

Board member Stephen Pritchard said he attends every home men's and women's basketball game, and during one game, he noticed out of 50 attendees who were sitting on the floor, only 10 were wearing masks.

A young fan mimics the cheerleaders during the first half of the Indiana-Jackson State men's basketball game Nov. 23.
A young fan mimics the cheerleaders during the first half of the Indiana-Jackson State men's basketball game Nov. 23.

"There is mass non-compliance with the fans that are closest to the team and closest to the floor," Pritchard said.

Monroe County health officer Dr. Thomas Sharp suggested IU's messaging should include that attendees would be better protecting the team's health by wearing masks.

Dolson agreed with Dr. Sharp, pointing out that there are some schools across the country that have had to pause their game schedule due to upticks of cases amongst players and coaches.

"With how rabid the fan base is, if we really urge them that this really protects the team as well and protects the environment (and) we want to keep it going, we will. It's a great suggestion and we'll definitely do that, start really going down that road," Dolson said.

While attendee compliance is vital regardless of seating, Dolson agreed with Pritchard that mask-wearing is extremely important close to the court. According to Dolson, IU has discussed additional measures around the court before and are now committed to take more action there.

"We will do more around the court," Dolson said.

Dolson said he appreciated board members' suggestions and said IU leaders will continue to brainstorm new ideas to increase attendee compliance.

"This is not at all (the IU athletics department) thinking it's no big deal or we're not supportive. We are right there with you, arm in arm, and trust me on that," Dolson said.

Contact Rachel Smith at rksmith@heraldt.com or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana University faces challenge to get fans to mask up